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Deadly Month for Journalists in Afghanistan; Network Morning Shows Transformed by 9/11; The Importance of Interpreters

Aired November 24, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

In a few moments, we'll talk with the producer of one of the network morning shows about how war and terrorism have dramatically changed what we see when we wake up.

But first, it's been a deadly month for journalists in Afghanistan; four killed earlier this week on a mountain highway outside of Kabul after being forced from their vehicles by gunmen. Three others were killed earlier this month when Northern Alliance troops that they were traveling with were ambushed.

Gary Scurka is a producer with National Geographic Television who was wounded in Northern Afghanistan last week. We'll talk with him in just a moment, but first let's look at the moment when he came under fire, while the cameras were rolling.






SCURKA: Not in a good spot, either. You OK?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hit, there, all right.

SCURKA: Let's get on the other side of the tank, guys. Let's get on that side, because they've zeroed in on this position.


NARRATOR: The questions you hear are from cameraman Heath Scott (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you all right? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, let's wrap you up first.

HEATH SCOTT, CAMERAMAN: Gary, you just got hit by a tank shell. What the hell did that feel like?

SCURKA: Nothing I've ever felt before. A tornado and I felt the pain, and looked down, and there was the blood, and I felt dazed for a second, but I knew to get the hell out of there.


KURTZ: Gary Scurka, what happened immediately after you were hit, as we just saw?

SCURKA: Well, there was a loud explosion, and there was a little bit of confusion for a few seconds, as you can imagine, Howard. But the news people I was with, there was a couple of guys from NBC, it was a reporter from "USA Today." Nobody ran, nobody panicked. I mean, those guys took off their scarves they were wearing...

KURTZ: To help you.

SCURKA: To help me, yeah. And they put it around my knee and they put it around my upper leg, and the first thing they thought of was me, and I'll always be grateful for that.

KURTZ: Despite the danger of another shell or another attack coming in.

SCURKA: Apparently the Taliban had found the range. That tank was being fired on, and at any minute we could have been hit again.

KURTZ: And where exactly where your wounds?

SCURKA: I was hit in three places. One is in my inner leg, that's a big entry and exit wound, on my upper right leg an entry and exit wound, and oddly enough I didn't discover until the next day...

KURTZ: The next day.

SCURKA: The next day, that a piece of shrapnel had entered my chest and came out about three inches on the other side.

KURTZ: I understand you have sort of an unintentional souvenir of that moment.

SCURKA: Yes, I do. And to me, Howard, this is a -- it's going to be a reminder for me of a number of things.

KURTZ: It's your passport.

SCURKA: Yes, this was in my back pocket when the shell went off, and I didn't notice this until hours later. But it's going to be a reminder to me how dangerous Afghanistan is and frankly a tribute I hope to the reporters that were over there, and especially the ones that helped me. It's a dangerous place. KURTZ: People out there must be wondering, why would you risk your life? Is any story -- is any TV footage really worth taking -- putting yourself in those kinds of dangerous conditions?

SCURKA: It is a good question. Obviously, before we went we weighed the risks. I talked about it with my family. It's something I had never done before. This was my first time in a war zone. But that's a reporters job, you know that. And it's our job to go over there and do this, and I thought that the risk was worth it to bring the information back.

KURTZ: Having been in such a close call, what was your reaction to the news, the tragic news of the killing of the four journalists last week?

SCURKA: Well, that's why I'm saving this passport. It's going to be a reminder. Like the rest of the world, obviously I was just shocked. This is a new, a new area of journalist now. It's a killing field for journalists.

When we were there, the Taliban put the word out, journalists are going to be killed on the spot, and as far as I know it didn't scare me, it didn't scare anybody else. Just another form of terrorism.

KURTZ: The journalists who were killed were from countries like Italy, Spain, Australia. If one of them had been American, do you think the story would have been played here at home with about 500 times the magnitude as it was?

SCURKA: Yeah. Fair question, and...

KURTZ: What does that say about the media?

SCURKA: I think you're right. I think if it was an American journalist that was killed, the coverage would have been a little bit bigger.

KURTZ: Huge.

SCURKA: Absolutely. What does it say about the media? I'm not quite sure, Howard. I know that because this is America and American journalists, you know, are reporting, I think they might want to talk about one of their own more.

KURTZ: Any resentment toward the Pentagon for not allowing American journalists and photographers more frontline access to U.S. troops, thereby prompting people like you to take these kind of risks in order to get into Afghanistan?

SCURKA: No, no resentment. In fact, in a lot of ways I can understand the need for the secrecy and so forth. No resentment, but we sure wish we had that kind of access. But I don't resent them. They're doing their jobs.

KURTZ: This is a journalistic cliche, but would you go back? Would you do it again? SCURKA: Yes, I would. Frankly, especially with those journalists being killed, I want to go back. I do.

KURTZ: OK. Let's bring in our other guests now. Joining us from Chicago is Jim Warren, deputy managing editor of "The Chicago Tribune" and a contributor to MSNBC. In New York, Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS's "The Early Show," and here in Washington Paul Farhi, reporter for "The Washington Post."

Steve Friedman, do correspondents go marching off to war, whether it's Bob Simon or Christian Amanpour or Ashleigh Banfield or Geraldo, in part to make a name for themselves?

STEVE FRIEDMAN, CBS: Well, it's the big leagues, it's the major leagues, it's the World Series. It's when people are watching, and it's when lots of reputations are being made.

I think you have to differentiate between the Geraldo's of the world, who are big stars who go in, and the people who work day and night, like Gary and the rest of them, to bring you the news.

But, again, this is our job. It's like being a doctor, a lawyer, a pilot. This is our job. We go cover where the news is, and right now the news is in Afghanistan.

KURTZ: Paul Farhi, now that there are lots of reporters in Afghanistan, which was not true in the early weeks, under obviously dangerous conditions, what kind of pictures are we getting of the war coverage; Kodachrome sharp or rather fuzzy?

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, fuzzy on one hand, but in one very specific way we're seeing something very important; we're seeing dead bodies. And that is not something that we have seen in warfare, at least warfare involving the United States, for quite some time.

We did not see many dead bodies during the Gulf War...

KURTZ: It was kind of like a video game war, an antiseptic war.

FARHI: It was. It was mainly controlled by the Pentagon. We saw the aftermath. We saw the highway of death. But we did not see what exactly we had brought over there.

We are now seeing what our allies, the Northern Alliance, are doing there, and in fact it's quite shocking, although I think most people definitely support what is going on.

KURTZ: Yes, and of course most people remember what happened on September 11th, which was the backdrop and the important context for this war.

Jim Warren, any "Chicago Tribune" correspondents involved in any close calls or any violent episodes over there?

JIM WARREN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Oh, for sure, Howie. In that eight car, eight vehicle convoy in which the four were killed, there was a "Chicago Tribune" reporter, Michael Lev (ph), who is normally based in Beijing, which just sort of underscores the role of serendipity in all these sorts of situations.

Conversely, we had both a reporter and a photographer travelling for five days virtually alone along a rather treacherous Northern Alliance supply route, five days, first in a jeep that broke down, then in a pickup truck that broke down, then on horses. They came away unscathed. Paul Salafack (ph), who won a Pulitzer Prize last year in foreign reporting, and Pete Sousa (ph), who is based in Washington.

KURTZ: This is not easy business.

Steve Friedman, now that the tied has turned, at least militarily, in Afghanistan, I see a lot of armchair generals in the press saying let's invade Iraq; let's take out Saddam. Is it a little too easy, do you think, for people who are armed basically with word processors to be issuing these kinds of orders?

FRIEDMAN: Weren't these same guys who said we were in a quagmire and the bombing wasn't doing any good?

KURTZ: Quagmire, would go on for years. Vietnam all over again.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, you know, you really have to worry about a lot of these guys who have former next to their names. But on the other hand, it's hard to believe that this administration is not taking a close look at their friend Saddam Hussein. And I would not be surprised if there is an excuse that we would take some action.

FARHI: Well, I wanted to point out one thing, just on the question of journalists; if the situation continues the way it is, this will have the perverse irony of being the one American military engagement in which more journalists have been killed than U.S. service people, and I think that speaks to the kind of risk that journalists have taken in this war, and the inability to control the circumstances under which they are reporting.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, what do you make of the bomb Baghdad media crowd?

WARREN: Well, I mean it's sort of part and parcel of the echo chamber of Washington, the armchair commanders, many of whom never served in the military, and now they're getting tough. They're the guys, as Steve said, who wanted those thousands and thousands of troops on the ground so we could bash the Taliban, and now they want to drop the big one on Iraq and get rid of what they think may be the catalyst for all this, might be, and that's Saddam Hussein.

I think you've got to take it all with a little grain of salt. And these are many of the same people, probably, if you went back to the snows of New Hampshire, were declaring that the, you know, Democratic and Republican party establishments were down the tubes, that John McCain and Bill Bradley were going to wind up being the candidates of their parties for president. KURTZ: We have those videotapes in reserve for the proper moment.

Steve Friedman, something I've really been struck on is that in the first couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the media's approval rating in a couple of the polls was up around 85 percent. The coverage was serious, it was sober, it was comprehensive, and the press really seemed in tune with the surge of patriotism in the country.

Well, more recently there was a Gallup poll that showed the press having a 57 percent disapproval rate for the coverage of the war on terrorism, anthrax and so forth. Any thought as to why this rather dramatic plunge in public esteem after what seemed to be a pretty good start from the media's point of view.

FRIEDMAN: Well, our job is not to be popular. Our job is to ask questions, and I think when you ask some tough questions, all of the sudden people think you're not patriotic. I think it is patriotic to ask tough questions, and I think our approval rating will continue to go down as we ask tougher and tougher questions.

The fact is, after the September 11th, we were reporting this story in a way where we had to be approved, because we were just showing the barbaric tactics of Mr. bin Laden and his friends, and we were in lock-step with America. Now we're questioning everything: should we go into Iraq? Should we trust the Northern Alliance? Should these people who vow to fight to the death and surrender be allowed to escape through the back door? We're asking some tough questions now, and I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with those tough questions.

KURTZ: But it may not just be tough questions, Gary Scurka? I mean, I wonder whether a lot of people are turned off just to the relentless negativism of the press coverage. A couple of people here have already mentioned how this was supposed to be, you know, a Vietnam-style terrible slump for the American alliance, and of course that did not turn out to be the case. Does that have anything to do with the low public esteem once again of the media?

SCURKA: Maybe it does. Oddly, I spoke to several people last night at my hotel who were voicing the same concerns. They paralleled exactly what you just said. In the beginning, there was a drum beating, if you will. And now they've told me they are sick and tired of the negativity. It's depressing them. And the holiday seasons are here, and frankly they don't want to see the World Trade Towers be hit by planes any more, and they didn't want to see, you know, the tanks and the dead bodies in Afghanistan.

FARHI: You have to look at another poll, which shows that 91 percent of the public supports the military engagement in Afghanistan, and that's an extraordinary number you get on no other kind of question. Which means that any time you're questioning the U.S. policy you're going to get a very negative reaction from people, and that's exactly what's going on here. We raise the questions, we take the brunt of public opinion as a result of that. WARREN: And rest assured, Howie and Paul and everybody, that once we get past the Afghanistan stage and we are faced with undoubtedly the same sort of problems that the White House is mulling right now, where to go, what to do, the sorts of questions that we'll all be raising will probably be translated into even lower public opinion when it comes to media.


FRIEDMAN: ... we shouldn't even care about our public opinion ratings. I mean, we're not running for office.

KURTZ: Well, I'll tell you what, a lot of news executives do. Jim Warren, just briefly, a lot of the -- the coverage of the anthrax story came back this week, and I think that part of the negative perception may have been what I see as the media inadvertently trying to scare a lot of people. Now we have this 94-year-old woman in Connecticut tragically dying of anthrax. But I think that the media hysteria was not quite as great this time around. What do you think?

WARREN: No, not at all. Particularly if you sit out here in the great American heartland. Things are actually kind of measured. On the evening newscast, late night newscast, the morning shows, which tend to have a thrust toward the titillating and the superficial, things are rather measured. When it came to the anthrax outbreak or the incident in Connecticut, it didn't get the sort of publicity it might have on the East Coast. In fact, this morning the two Chicago papers, the lead story had to do with holiday shopping, not anthrax, not Afghanistan.

KURTZ: The coverage obviously much more intensive in New York and Washington where some of the attacks were concentrated.

Well, Gary Scurka of the "National Geographic," thanks very much for joining us. Our other guests stick around, and when we come back the war on terrorism ushers in a new look for the network morning shows.



The events of September 11th have prompted a transformation in the way the network morning shows do business. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the shows devoted only 7 percent of their time to hard news last June, but by October the figure had jumped to 58 percent.

Let's take a look at how the CBS "Early Show" juggled the serious and not so serious one morning this week.


BRYANT GUMBEL, CBS: The war continues in Afghanistan. Here's the latest from there. This morning, fresh bombing raids by American war planes reportedly targeted the southern city of Kandahar. In the north, meanwhile, American commander General Tommy Franks vowed that we will prevail in running the Taliban out of the city of Kunduz.



GUMBEL: What defines something as a biscuit and not a bread?

MARTHA STEWART, CBS: Well, a biscuit is fast. It's quick. There's no yeast. It's baking powder.

GUMBEL: OK, so it's not leavened?

STEWART: Yeah. No, no. It's leavened with baking powder or baking soda.


KURTZ: Steve Friedman, Martha Steward aside, what accounts for this sudden outbreak of journalistic responsibility on your part in doing a lot more foreign news, national news, government news, compared to just last summer?

FRIEDMAN: Well, everybody in morning television wants to be appropriate, and last June we didn't have a news story, so we had to put a lot of other stuff in there. We have to fill the two hours. You know, we don't want to put on color bars because we don't have anything to put on. And Martha Stewart...

KURTZ: But what you didn't do, put on celebrities. You put on lifestyle, you put on sports figures.

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, celebrities, celebrities and lifestyle are very important to a large section of our audience. However, they are less important when bombs are falling, people are being killed, and anthrax is coming out. So, you know, we try to be appropriate to what's going on, and we think that right now it's -- you're better off being a little harder than a little softer.

KURTZ: So, as soon as, as soon as the bombs stop falling and the anthrax stops popping up, then Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson will go back to movie stars and people peddling books and that sort of thing?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. You know, people -- movie stars -- you know, people are interested in Tom Cruise and they're interested in some of the good authors, and there's a lot of interest in things that people have in their very daily life. You know, things that they can use in their life like money and stuff like that.

KURTZ: OK. Paul Farhi.

FARHI: This is just goes into the "duh" file to me. I mean, the fact is that Americans feel personally threatened. They feel that the country is threatened. So, of course, all of the news is going to be about those topics. And to...

KURTZ: So, you're saying they have no choice? FARHI: Well, they don't really have any choice, because the way people use the news is they turn it on to see if the world has ended, and that is really a critical difference between now and any time before September 11th.

FRIEDMAN: It's absolutely -- he's absolutely right. Because people wake up in the morning, and they want to find out what the hell is going on. They want to know when they go to work or go to school...

KURTZ: Well, I would argue that that's true even when we're not at war. But I'd like to hear Jim Warren's thinking.

WARREN: Yeah, with all due respect, guys, can I slightly demure here, and I do it as an employee at a company, "Tribune" which is now the fourth largest broadcaster in the company; actually, as a broadcasting company its bigger than NBC and ABC. We've got -- Steve knows, because we've got a lot of competitors out there for him at big major markets, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, just among the three, and those morning shows of ours, which tend to be light as a feather and very successful, you will now confuse them, Howie, with "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" or with "Nightline."

And you're turning it on not necessarily to find out, with all due respect to Paul, whether the world is still there, but a lot of folks are tuning in to find out the news, the weather and sports, and have some friendly, easy, frolicking banter among your happy-talk anchors before they head out the front door and to the office.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, there are two kinds of morning shows. The FOX and the WB and the "Tribune" style morning shows, which are local and a lot of talk, a lot like radio. And then there are the three network shows which battle it out, and you can figure out which one you want to battle it out with.

KURTZ: One other subject before we go, Paul Farhi. I've been really surprised to the huge play this week to the story about the White House deciding to end the holiday tours, at least temporarily, for security reasons. It seemed to me to be a reasonable security decision, but this got huge play. Why so?

FARHI: Because it's symbolic. It says that even the most secure building in the nation, the greatest nation on earth, is not secure enough. That we can't even allow tourists to come in in the very measured way in which we allow tourists in. It's quite a symbolic statement by the White House.

KURTZ: So you don't think the White House was pumping, I mean that the media were pumping this up because it was, you know, the president is giving missed messages, return to your normal lives, but you can't come see my Christmas tree?

FARHI: Well, I think there is that element of it too, but I also think it says to people who are not politically minded that we still live in perilous times; that the White House, even the White House, is not secure for ordinary citizens to go visit. KURTZ: We will have to leave it there. Paul Farhi, Steven Friedman in New York, Jim Warren in Chicago, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, who do American reporters turn to for the real scoop in Afghanistan? The answer in Bernard Kalb's BACK PAGE.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Afghanistan was something of a mystery to most journalists, but then came September 11th, and there has since been some great reporting out of the country, but did you notice this...


KALB (voice-over): That's right, there's a third person here, the interpreter. By contrast, bombs don't need any interpreter, everyone understands that language. But when American reporters want to find out what's happening here, the interpreter is the critical in between. And in a country that sounds like the Tower of Babel, with three main languages and lots of dialects, you'd be talking to yourself if you didn't have someone to translate Dari or Pashtu or Turkish. In other words, no interpreter, big problem.

And this missing link so far as languages in this corner of the world are concerned, this missing linguistic link tells us a lot about the U.S. media, which for the most part speak only one language, their own. And the reason is obvious: English has ricocheted around the world. It's everywhere. And so a kind of linguistic arrogance is the result, which means that since we don't have the local lingo, we can't penetrate local cultures on our own. We have to depend on a linguistic middleman.

And not only mere reporters, wasn't that embarrassing the way a super power had to go about begging for Pashtu and Arabic translators in the days following 9/11.

But now, because of the terrorist threat, it looks as though we're playing catchup. "The New York Times" reports that Arabic language courses at some colleges are filling up, and you can bet some reporters have embarked on a crash course of their own.

To some degree, that's what happened with Chinese language courses when President Nixon went to Beijing in '72, with Russian language courses when the Sputnik hit the sky in the mid-50's, with Vietnamese language studies when the U.S. went to war in the mid-60's.

Even so, most of the U.S. media, like most Americans, remain mostly monolingual.


KALB: So, Pashtu anyone? Or Dari? Or Turkic? Muafakh bashed (ph) -- that's good luck in Dari, the language most Afghans speak.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, no translation necessary, with "The Back Page."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern and again next Saturday evening at 6:30 PM Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.




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